The People’s Poet: Billie Nardozzi

9 photos of Billie Nardozzi in a collage

The People’s Poet. Billie Nardozzi at home in Green Tree.

Editor’s note: at the time this story was first reported and published, in January, 2018, Rachel Ann Bovier was still going by her birth name of Billie Nardozzi, as evidenced in the included poems and Bigelow Blvd. billboard. The transition to the new name and gender pronoun happened over the ensuing year.


You see poetry is open
For the whole world to see
And you can make it into anything
You want it to be
– Billie Nardozzi, “What Is Poetry”

 

Call him Bard of the Back-Pages or maybe the Classified Chaucer. Lamar Advertising came up with Pittsburgh’s Premier Poet and that’s hard to argue with. Around The Orbit water cooler he’s “The People’s Poet”–you can use that one too.

If you don’t know Billie Nardozzi, you haven’t been paying attention…or maybe you just don’t get the paper. For the last twelve years, the image of Nardozzi’s familiar schnoz, deadpan stare, and business-in-front, party-in-the-back haircut has appeared weekly in the “Celebrations” section of the Post-Gazette’s classified ads, along with short original poetry and contact information.

“I got the idea from the sports pages,” Nardozzi tells us, “each column would have a picture of the writer along with the name at the top and I thought, ‘Why don’t I do that?'”

In 2006, Billie Nardozzi did exactly that. He began creating new poems-of-the-week that have run consistently–with the occasional couple months hiatus–ever since. Along the way, Billie has earned a devoted following who commission original works for special occasions and invite him to read at events.

“I try to keep it basic,” Billie says of his writing style, “I go through the same things as my readers…so many times someone will tell me ‘I would swear you were writing that poem about me.'”

This past December, Billie’s invitation for Christmas cards drew a whopping ninety-seven different holiday letters from fans. He’s so fond of these that a batch of favorites have been professionally laminated and were close-at-hand during our interview.

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

Recent Nardozzi: “I Love ‘Shop ‘n Save'” / “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” / “‘The 3 Bees’ (Bell, Ben, Brown)” (2015-2016)*

If you’ve ever put pen to paper and tried to convince anyone to read it, you know what a pain in the ass it is. This literary dilettante has dipped his quill into the worlds of short and micro fiction, comedy, theater, poetry, and songwriting. All of these came with their own unique forms of rejection and heartbreak…and ultimately led to the immediacy and answer-to-no-one world of high stakes blogging.

We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine an academic poetry journal or glossy magazine printing one of Billie’s odes to Olive Garden, the Ellen DeGeneress Show, or his local Hyundai dealership; sentimental reflections on holidays, family, and friends probably wouldn’t fare much better.

So it is with tremendous respect–one writer to another–that we appreciate how Nardozzi found a way to self-publish his own original work and distribute it to the 300,000 or so circulation size of the Post-Gazette. Like the Bolsheviks and punk rockers before him, Billie Nardozzi took the means of production and found a way to do it himself, getting his expressions of positivity, fun, and the human experience out into the world…and kept on doing it for going on twelve years now.

Billie Nardozzi in front of a closet full of colorful women's blazers

Blazer light show. Billie Nardozzi in the world’s most organized closet.

Brett Yasko is a graphic designer and Billie Nardozzi fan who has archived the poet’s contributions to the Post-Gazette almost since the beginning*. He has a similar appreciation for the unorthodox approach to publishing:

I started clipping his poems out of the paper in early 2008. I read the poems but I was more interested in how [Nardozzi] was using the newspaper to put his work out into the world. I know some poets and I know how hard it is to get “published” and then once you do, the audience is often limited. He was sort of gaming the system and I dug that. The photo he used was great and I loved his freewheeling ways with quotation marks. I said to myself, “I don’t know what will ever come of this–if anything–but I’ve got to start saving these things.”

three poems by Billie Nardozzi as they appeared in the appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette "Celebrations" section of classified ads

“If I Met Jesus” (1/26/2010) / “What Is Poetry” (4/10/2012) / “The Turkey Bandit” (11/23/2015)

The story took an interesting turn this past fall. On a whim, Nardozzi walked into a local Lamar Advertising office and booked a billboard for personal use. If you’ve driven to Bloomfield, the upper Hill District, or Polish Hill recently, you know what I’m talking about. The big sign on Bigelow Blvd.–at the awkward five-way intersection with Herron and Paulowna–is unmissable. It features Nardozzi’s name, home phone number, the premier poet tag line, and one of Billie’s “one-liner” aphorisms (which change month-to-month).

What’s likely to catch your attention first, though, is the photograph of Nardozzi. In it, Billie’s top-heavy rock-and-roll hair has been teased into a curlier feminine incarnation, his nails are painted pink, and he’s wearing a decorative blouse and a pair of big rings. For those of us used to the black-and-white jacket-and-tie Nardozzi from the newspaper or his appearances on The Fetko Zone, this change in style was a bit of a surprise.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's photo and the text "Put the 'freeze' on hate, and the 'heat' on love," Pittsburgh, PA

“Put the ‘freeze’ on hate, and the ‘heat’ on love,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, November, 2017

It takes a lot of guts to do anything creative and put it out there in the world–the human race is not always kind to artistic expression. Attaching one’s real name and home telephone number ups the ante considerably. For an old-school Pittsburgher to address a cynical world with messages of love, peace, and good cheer, cross-dressed in ladies clothes, hair, and makeup on a twenty-five foot wide roadside billboard is about as daring a move as we can imagine.

As one might expect, not all the messages left on Billie’s answering machine are kind. He gets plenty of crank calls, along with a recurring lecture from a retired English professor on his use of quotation marks. None of these have ever been a problem, though. Nardozzi tells us the calls are “never threatening,” “I’m laughing along with them,” and “the good outweighs the bad.”

To underscore this last point, while we were talking in the kitchen, a nice-sounding caller named Jennifer left a lovely, heartfelt message of support and appreciation “from one artist to another.” Hearing the message clearly had Nardozzi beaming.

billboard with Billie Nardozzi's picture and the text "I wish you great cheer in the coming new year," Pittsburgh, PA

“I wish you great cheer in the coming new year,” Bigelow Blvd. billboard, January, 2018

Ultimately, Billie Nardozzi would like to publish a book of his work. He already has the pink and black design picked out as well as a to-the-point title, Poems and One-Liners by Billie Nardozzi. When the time comes, I’m pretty sure we can find him a book designer.

“I wouldn’t be mad if I never made any money,” Billie says of his investments in the Post-Gazette and Lamar, “If my words can make someone happy, that’s worth all the money in the world.”

There is absolutely no question that Billie Nardozzi’s words, spirit, and energy have brought joy to many, many people already. You see it in the handwriting on his Christmas cards, hear it the messages left on his answering machine, and feel it in the adoring comments on his FaceBook page.

Keats, Yeats, or any of them guys, Nardozzi ain’t. But then again, Robert Frost never wrote “Godzilla Meets The Lesbian” or “The Turkey Bandit.” Whether it’s more or less traveled, we don’t know, but here at the Orbit we’ll take the Nardozzi Road any time we get the chance.

Bonus video: Billie (neé Billy) Nardozzi performing “Super Bowl Steelers” with T.C. The Peanut Vendor on The Fedko Fone Zone, 2010.


* Reprints of Billie Nardozzi’s poems come from Celebrations, Brett Yasko’s archive of Nardozzi’s poetry as it originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and is used with permission of both Nardozzi and Yasko. Yasko also designed and published a printed book of selected Nardozzi poems of the same name. For more information, see: brettyasko.com/self-initiated/celebrations.

Out on the Tiles: Bill Miller, Lord of Linoleum

linoleum collage artwork depicting a steel mill with city in the distance by Bill Miller

“Steal Mill”*

The image is burned into the DNA of America. Even if you were too young to experience it as it happened, you’ll recognize the figure kneeling on a wide campus footpath. The young woman’s arms are extended to either side and her mouth is agape in what may either be a cry for help, scream of rage, or wail of mourning–perhaps all three. Around her, dazed college students seem to have lost all mooring on reality. Laying face-down on the hard concrete is one of the four slain victims of the 1970 Kent State massacre.

linoleum assemblage artwork representing Kent State massacre, 1970 by artist Bill Miller

“Eager Children Cry”, 2010*

This version, however, is different. The black-and-white photo you’re familiar with now appears in a vibrant array of colors–green fields and bright scarlet classroom buildings, blue jeans and red blood. Also, the layers don’t stand still. Rich, swirling grass seems to be in turbulent sea motion under each of the participants; clothing is alive with texture; every detail–hair, shadows, sidewalk–has an optical illusion-like quality that manages to be both flat and with an inverted depth that places any figure on just about any plane, if you look at it the right way.

artwork of woman's face made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

PABCO woman

When we bought the house, the two rooms of Chez Orbit‘s top floor were covered in a pair of space-age “boomerang modern” mid-century designs completely out-of-place in a 19th century brick row house. The linoleum–a pattern with colorful geometric curved squares intersecting and overlapping all manner of sci-fi cubes, circles, and squiggles–had been installed way back in 1955. Yellowed back pages of The Pittsburgh Press from that year formed a thin barrier between the pine floor boards and the unrolled, wall-to-wall tile and served to precisely date the installation. The linoleum had some scuffs and tears for sure, but the material held up.

When we finally decided to work on the third-floor space, this can’t-throw-anything-away blogger dutifully held onto both the Jetsons-style floor covering and the innocuous news of the day for way longer than he had any reason to. Why? Well, the linoleum just seemed really cool and somebody should do something interesting with it.

artist Bill Miller holding his linoleum portrait of George Harrison in his Pittsburgh art studio

Bill Miller (with linoleum portrait of George Harrison) in his North Point Breeze studio

That somebody, we found out way too late, is Bill Miller and for the last twenty-some years he’s been slicing and peeling, tearing and rearranging the nation’s discarded high-performance floor covering into a terrific body of artwork.

Both pastoral and industrial, historic and fantastic, Miller’s (re-)use of the material manages to look both backward and forward, to be sentimental and transcendental, to be both calming and unnerving. It’s sprung from the artist’s imagination and–like the take on Kent State–totally reverent to a real, shared history of America in the 20th Century.

collection of small artworks on Bill Miller's studio wall, Pittsburgh, PA

Studio wall with Donald Trump portrait

“I count on the material to be exciting,” Miller says, “for the linoleum to feed the work.”

The linoleum is exciting. Surrounded by heaped cardboard box-loads, piles stacked from the floor, and work tables full of sliced bits and bobs, Bill Miller’s North Point Breeze studio has a hundred attics’ worth of somebody-else’s memories just waiting to move from the floor and up onto the wall.

There are geometric mid-century designs like the ones we used to have upstairs, along with wood grains, ersatz Oriental carpets, floral arrangements, psychedelic swirls, and designs for children’s playrooms. The particulate from a century’s worth of disintegrating linoleum peppers the air as a dozen different simultaneously-in-process artworks lay on work tables waiting for their next addition on the road to doneness.

in-process linoleum collage artwork by Bill Miller

untitled / in-process studio piece

Don’t worry, though–it’s all natural, non-toxic stuff. Linoleum is made from linseed oil applied to a burlap or canvas backing. The flooring had its run from the late 1800s through the mid-20th century when cheaper, more durable vinyl took over the market. Miller doesn’t mess around with PVC. “Only the old stuff–pre-World War 2,” he says.

Given the age, you’d think there would be a dwindling supply of (re-)usable material out there, but that hasn’t been the case. Just like our top floor, Pittsburgh–and the rest of America–is chock full of old houses with stores of linoleum still in use and gradually getting removed as young whippersnappers move into those old houses and fix them up. “Getting the material out of people’s homes is really powerful,” Miller says, “people have a real connection to the linoleum.”

linoleum artwork depicting the sinking of the Titanic by Bill Miller

“Titanic”, 2014

As one might expect, there are certain colors, shapes, and patterns that either don’t exist or just don’t show up that often in the recycled linoleum supply. True black is particularly rare, Miller says, and he almost never comes across purple.

Other patterns speak to Miller immediately. “The material is part of the composition,” he says. A speckled red and blue on an off-white background was so obviously birch tree bark that it had only one purpose. Looking at it now, laid out on on a work table and (nearly) fully-composed, it’s hard to imagine what the raw piece looked like before it got trimmed down to tree trunks–it’s just so perfect in its final composition.

artwork of forest scene featuring birch trees made from cut linoleum by artist Bill Miller

untitled/in-process (birch trees)

… and then there’s the rock-and-roll. This interview got majorly side-tracked when both parties started geeking out on record shopping, music fandom, Bob Dylan’s radio show, The dBs, and Sonic Youth.

This is only really relevant because Miller is very obviously a huge music fan who fulfilled a personal dream in hooking-up with the Frank Zappa estate to produce album cover artwork for two of the musician’s posthumous releases. The live compilation LP Finer Moments (Zappa, 2012) and spoken-word/congressional testimony CD Congress Shall Make No Law… (Zappa, 2010) both feature Miller’s renderings of Frank Zappa created specifically for each of the records: one, early ’70s Zappa, long-haired and smoking; the other, mid-’80s suit-and-tied, talking with the press.

Miller has converted linoleum into numerous tributes to music icons including The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Mahalia Jackson, David Bowie, Maybelle Carter, Hank Williams, and Brian Eno. Among the collectors of his work are musicians Neko Case, Dave Matthews, and The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit.

Album cover for Frank Zappa "Finer Moments" LP, artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Finer Moments” LP, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Frank Zappa, "Congress Shall Make No Law..." CD with album cover artwork by Bill Miller

Frank Zappa, “Congress Shall Make No Law…” CD, album cover artwork by Bill Miller*

Oh, there’s a lot more that could be said. There are Miller’s depictions of American history in the form of Abraham Lincoln, the sinking of the Titanic, landing on the moon, and the Kennedy assassination, along with more conceptual/impressionist pieces around urban/industrial life and personal reminiscences of his childhood and family life growing up in Cleveland…but that’s something for another story.

It would be great to end this piece with an invitation to view Miller’s work at an upcoming show, but…he’s got nothing scheduled for Pittsburgh in 2018 (sigh). For now, we’ll just say that Bill Miller’s inclusions in the 2016 Re:NEW Festival/DRAP Art show were a major revelation. We’re so glad we were able to track him down and that he took the time to welcome us up to his studio and into the linosphere.

To see more of Bill Miller’s linoleum artwork, check out his web site billmillerart.com, or follow him on Instagram at @billmillerart.


* Photos courtesy of Bill Miller / billmillerart.com. All other photos by Pittsburgh Orbit.

All Rite Now: Simeon Larivonovoff, Painter of Icons

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff holding a glowing icon of the Arcangel Michael

“An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured.” Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of “golden hair” Archangel Michael

Waaaay longer than most of us can conceive of. Longer than the United States of America has existed; earlier than the Europeans landing at Jamestown and Plymouth Rock; a hundred years before Columbus was born–let alone sailed the ocean blue.

Six hundred and fifty-nine years. That’s how long the continuous line of Russian icon painters goes back. For seven centuries, the ancient devotional practice of creating highly-formal prayer paintings has been passed from father to son [yes: they have all been men]. That uninterrupted legacy may come to an end here, in Pittsburgh, with Simeon Larivonovoff.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff sitting on a bed with a small dog on his knee

“You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” Simeon with one of his “doggies” in his bedroom/workroom.

A blast of sensations–I’ll warn you they’re not all pleasant–will arrive early and often. Visiting Simeon’s modest Polish Hill home begins with the raucous barking of his six dogs which completely nullifies any need for a doorbell. Simeon refers to these pooches with the diminutive “my doggies” or “my puppies,” even though they’re all full grown–several in a very big way. At least one member of the pack will be a constant companion–on the lap, by his side in the garden, or taken out on a leash sporting a jaunty kerchief as companion on Simeon’s frequent walks over the Bloomfield Bridge to the Shur-Save, or up Liberty Avenue.

The musky smell of animal fur–there are also a pair of house cats–mixes with the splinters of unfinished wood floors, stiff knotted area rugs, furniture polish, and antique brass. But it is the evocative omnipresent flicker of lamp light refracted through glowing cut glass and its partner aroma of smoking paraffin oil that will color your memory hours, days–weeks even–after departing. It may also be the best analog for Simeon’s world.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff lighting oil lamp

“Electric light is not needed,” Simeon lighting one of the dozens of oil lamps that light his home

The well-meaning speculative journalist faces a challenge photographing inside Simeon’s home. “Electric light is not needed,” he says while igniting the wick of an ornate, retractable, ceiling-mounted oil lamp–one of dozens of different models throughout the house–“these [lamps] are not in today’s society.”

Simeon is a member of the Russian Orthodox “Old Believers”–a sect of Greek Orthodoxy that preserves church practices going back to the 1600s, along with many of the lifestyle habits that go with it. “We pray in a pure 17th century style, before reform. We are non-conformists,” Simeon says. He further describes the group as “The Amish of Russian Orthodox.” The analogy–right down to the long beards and rejection of (most) modern technology–is pretty apt. On life in the 21st century: “I deal with the world, but I’m not influenced by it.”

That said, Old Believer practices also seem to overlap with that other locally-familiar brand of strict orthodoxy, Judaism. There is a weekly day-long, sundown-to-sundown sabbath in which no work may be done. “To cook a meal, to sew a button…no. A lot of people won’t answer the door on Sunday,” Simeon says of his fellow Old Believers. There is also a Kosher-like diet that forbids many of the same food sources: shellfish, eel, and octopus, pork and blood sausage.

partial icon for St. Praskevia with only the face and hands painted

“We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us.” St. Praskevia icon (in process)

A visit with Simeon falls somewhere between Sunday school and Psychedelic Shack; as much Waiting for the Sun as waiting for The Son. “An icon is a prayer in color. It is a window to paradise that shows you how to be transfigured,” Simeon says of the goal of his artwork. “You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.”

Simeon began painting icons at the age of nine, born into the family practice. “My father: you were his student,” Simeon says, “You had to learn a lot–prayers, colors.”

in-process icon of St. Kazanskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“Our Lady of Kazan”, Kazanskya icon (in process)

There certainly was–and is–a lot to learn. There was the practice of grinding his own paint pigments from natural sources [the tan color in the photographed icons comes from sycamore bark] and learning to read and write in church Slavonic (aka old church Bulgarian) with its 63-character alphabet. Icon painters must have “a library of icons in their head–the mind, heart, and hand are on the same level.”

Iconography follows a strict canonical representation of each saint. “You don’t dare deviate from the form,” says Simeon, “theology does not change.” Small details and colors may be chosen by the individual painter, but, according to Simeon, the main outline of an icon may never be altered between versions, renditions, and artists. Finished icons are never framed because “You cannot put God in a box.”

Certain details are crucial: the relation between forms or seemingly small elements–the number of curls in a beard or an eyebrow raised, finger positions or the clutch of a scroll. “How you portray hands on icons is very important,” says Simeon, “The hand of Daniel is very big to show you the prophesy.”

icon of St. Petrovskya by Simeon Larivonovoff

“An attainable salvation.” Icon of St. Petrovskya

Simeon’s knowledge of Russian church history and the world of iconography runs very very deep. So deep it’s no small challenge for the interviewer to keep up with the artist’s barrage of names, dates, liturgy, and riddle-like koans that densely fill each conversation like the icons that decorate his walls.

In our multiple meetings, I took a bunch of notes from Simeon’s monologues on subjects like St. Sergius Radonezh, sabbath practices, and The Schism. But with bon mots falling like beeswax drips from a prayer candle–“Falling in the mud is one thing, being of the mud is something else” or “An icon is a pilgrimage from one holy place to another…between heaven and earth to see glimpses of paradise” or “We don’t look at icons–they’re looking at us”–well, you should probably go to the history books when you’re really ready to dig in.

wall with dozens of traditional Russian Orthodox icons painted by Simeon Larivonovoff

“The wall of icons are witnesses interceding to God for you.” Simeon’s bedroom/workspace.

Simeon’s own history gets a little murkier. When and why he emigrated to America was dismissed with a wave of the hand, “You don’t mix cabbage with peas.” [I believe this was analogy about religious persecution.] The dates and ages that get thrown around freely are a little squishy, too. That 659 years we mentioned above was a mere 647 years in a previous meeting. The very precise histories of antique oil lamps and furniture? Well, they’re all plausible. An ancient Russian prayer book of psalms or “chants” may or may not be in demand from The Smithsonian.

Regardless, Simeon is absolutely devoted to his craft. “This is the sole reason for my existence–to paint icons,” he says. And paint he has. Simeon estimates he’s painted between three and four thousand icons in his lifetime for an audience both within his local communities and around the world–some devotional, others are private collectors. Now he’s down to creating around 50 a year with eight or ten in process during our meetings. “I’m getting old,” Simeon says.

icon painter Simeon Larivonovoff with icon of St. Hodogitria

“You ask the saint to help–you are not an artist, you are the medium.” Simeon with icon of St. Hodogitria, “She who takes you by the hand, she who shows you the way.”

As strict a regimen as Old Rite Russian Orthodoxy seems to this outsider–its denial of compact fluorescents, crab cakes, and rock-n-roll seems like a heavy price for salvation–that’s not the way Simeon sees it. “We are a joyful religion…sunset is a new day beginning,” he says.

It’s a lovely way to look at the world–the early extinguishing of light in these darkest December days as not the trigger for seasonal affective disorder, but rather the beginning of a new possibility. That we are of the mud, transfigured, and on our tip-toes, trying to get one of those glimpses of paradise. Just don’t mix your cabbage with peas.


Bonus material! Back in 2011, local filmmaker Julie Sokolow made a short film of Simeon where you can see the man in motion. The lamp-lighting, dogs, and challenges of shooting in a home without electric light are all there.

Neighbor of the Living Dead [or] I Was a Teenage Zombie

still from the movie "Night of the Living Dead" showing zombies breaking into farmhouse

John Kirch (on right) “starring” in “Night of the Living Dead”, 1968

John Kirch‘s career in crime began and ended in one slow-motion breaking-and-entering incident at an Evans City farmhouse fifty years ago. That experience–the young man tagging along with a particularly unruly pack of hoodlums–was not only caught on camera, but absorbed, analyzed, lovingly re-enacted, and paid tribute to. It also forever affected movie history.

The “crime,” of course, was a work a fiction. The film was George Romero’s debut feature, Night of the Living Dead, released the following year in 1968. While not the first of either, the picture has gone on to be a holy grail for both American independent filmmaking and the flood of late-night zombie flicks that followed. It is likely the most famous movie ever to come out of Pittsburgh[1].

John Kirch wearing a t-shirt with the message "I was dead before dead was cool"

Kirch today, at home in Lawrenceville [photo courtesy John Kirch]

The good news: If you have to shuffle off this mortal coil as a member of the undead feasts on your flesh, it might as well be at the hands of this guy. Mr. Kirch, now in his mid-60s, still moves deliberately, but it’s thankfully as a member of the living. Working until Midnight most evenings, any slowness can be attributed to the early-morning, first-coffee-of-the-day time of our visit rather than a methodical blood quest for brain breakfast.

I’ve lived right down the street from Kirch’s Lawrenceville home for the last seventeen years and didn’t find out he was involved in the movie until just recently. Between this revelation, the very recent passing of George Romero, and the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the film, we asked Kirch if he’d be up for an interview. He couldn’t have been more accommodating.

John Kirch at 15 years old

Don’t let the blazer fool you. Kirch at 15, around the time of filming “Night of the Living Dead” [photo courtesy John Kirch]

This blogger has never looked as cool as John Kirch appears in his sophomore-year class photo from Carrick High School. A torn-and-worn black-and-white image shows the once-and-future “teenage zombie” looking altogether suave–dapper, even. The young man sports a very of-its-time black turtleneck and blazer ensemble, his left hand jauntily clutches the jacket’s lapel. All he’s missing is to go full-on beatnik is a beret, goatee, and half-smoked Gauloise dangling from his mouth.

Kirch’s cool confidence was what got him in with the ghouls. Already bitten by a love of film and television, his sister introduced the adolescent Kirch to a Mr. Jack Givens. At the time, Givens was chief audio engineer at Hardman Associates, the (former) downtown Pittsburgh audio/film studio that collaborated with Romero and ultimately produced Night of the Living Dead.

Three-story neoclassical Pitt Building in downtown Pittsburgh

Pitt Building, Smithfield Street. Former home of Hardman Associates. [photo: John Kirch]

Givens told Kirch they might have a small part for him in the monster movie they were making, but he’d have to check back for a time and details. Kirch recalls phoning the studio every morning before school for weeks and asking for Givens. Each effort just resulted in Hardman’s receptionist relaying a “no” message back to him. But–as the always one step ahead readers of The Orbit will have divined–eventually Givens picked up the phone and gave Kirch the opportunity he was looking for.

Kirch was brought in late in the production after all of the lengthy interior scenes had already been filmed. The basement of a building at 247 Fort Pitt Blvd. where Romero had an office doubled for the farmhouse basement as there wasn’t adequate underground space for the Arriflex cameras, studio lighting, and film crew inside the tiny Evans City property used for the first floor scenes and exteriors.

still from "Night of the Living Dead" with zombies recoiling from fire

“Night of the Living Dead” molotov cocktail still. John Kirch behind central figure.

Kirch received the sum of his acting direction, “Don’t walk like Frankenstein,” (arms stiffly streched out) from Jack Givens in the car ride up to Butler County. A cold night, the would-be zombies were also commanded not to exhale while the camera was rolling–the filmmakers didn’t want actors’ visible breath ruining the continuity of the earlier (warmer weather) sequences.

Kirch has a great humility about his role in the production, stressing he was the most minor of players. Indeed, the young actor only spent two days on the Living Dead set. All of his scenes–the zombies’ final siege of the farmhouse–were filmed in just one evening.

still from "Night of the Living Dead" with zombies

“Night of the Living Dead” zombie still. John Kirch, third from left.

But what a night! Kirch got an up-close look at low-budget indie filmmaking at it best: actors doing each other’s makeup at the kitchen table, special effects wounds created from mortician’s wax, chocolate syrup subbing for blood, improvised lighting scrims from leafy tree branches, the tech crew suiting up for double-duty as onscreen extras.

One thing Kirch was not exposed to on the Living Dead set was the bureaucracy/safety concerns of a more studio-official film. These included setting fire to Jack Russo’s ghoul character. “Nowadays you’d have to have permits and a fire department on hand,” Kirch says, describing the molotov cocktail scene, “They just had the actor throw an empty bottle and lit a puddle of gasoline on fire to make it look like it blew up!”

Kirch remembers the 27-year-old George Romero as particularly hands-off with regard to directing actors. “He was really just concerned with how the picture looked through the camera…the lighting and angles,” says Kirch.

Fulton Theater marquee lit up for world premier of "Night of the Living Dead", Oct. 1, 1968

“Night of the Living Dead” world premier, Oct. 1, 1968 at the old Fulton Theater (now Byham), downtown [photo © Image Ten]

Somewhere around a year after that chilly night in Evans City, Kirch was invited by the production team to attend Night of the Living Dead‘s world premier at the Fulton Theater (now the Byham) downtown. He brought his sister as his date and remembers (Living Dead lead) Duane Jones arriving in a dramatic tuxedo, top hat, and cape.

Even more memorable to the teenaged Kirch was when the film opened for a full run at the old Arcade Theatre on the South Side[2] where Kirch was working as an usher at the time. His manager typed out the program’s time sheet listing Feature: Night of the Living Dead, Starring: John Kirch. The film was a big enough local success for it to hold over for a longer-than-expected run.

typed time schedule for former Arcade Theatre in Pittsburgh with first run of "Night of the Living Dead"

(Former) Arcade Theatre time schedule including “Night of the Living Dead” “starring” John Kirch [image courtesy of John Kirch]

The influence of being involved with a film production at such an impressionable age led Kirch to career in pictures–but not as an actor. After graduating from Carrick High, Kirch left Pittsburgh to pursue a degree in filmmaking from Cal Arts in Los Angeles before returning home. Here, he’s made a career as a film and video editor, primarily for local television stations WQED, WTAE, and, for the last 35 years, KDKA. He’s also worked on numerous films and contracted projects through the years.

newspaper ad for "Night of the Living Dead" mentioning a life insurance policy for $50,000

“Night of the Living Dead” newspaper ad, c. 1968

Night of the Living Dead has come back into Kirch’s life a number of times in the last five decades. The only professional one of these was around 1980 when he got an editing job cutting a no-dialog soundtrack to the film to be overdubbed in other languages for foreign markets.

Kirch explains with some envious regret that the existing foley (ambient audio) track was so good, he didn’t need to create any new sound effects. “I wanted to whack a watermelon with a tire iron.”

John Kirch with left hand painted blood red, preparing to leave a hand print on wall

“I wanted to whack a watermelon with a tire iron.” Kirch prepares to leave a bloody hand print at the Living Dead Museum, Evans City, PA [photo: Kevin Kriess]

The cult of Night of the Living Dead and George Romero’s numerous horror/zombie sequels has only grown through the years. Because of his minor role in the film, Kirch never felt compelled to join the fever. However, after being “outed” by a friend at a 2012 screening of the film at the Hollywood Theater with (Living Dead actor/producers) Russ and Gary Streiner[3], he’s been invited each year to the annual Living Dead Weekend festivals held in Evans City.

John Kirch with Russ and Gary Streiner on stage at Hollywood Theater, Dormont, PA

Kirch (right) “outed” at a “Night of the Living Dead” screening with Russ and Gary Streiner, Hollywood Theater, 2012 [photo: Joel Wlodarczyk]

As the second-youngest member of the cast, (Kyra Schon–the trowel-wielding, parent-murdering, child-turned-ghoul–was just ten at the time of filming) the Living Dead festivals have been bittersweet for Kirch. Fun to reconnect with acquaintances and fans, but also sad. So many of the original cast and crew have gone from, uh, living to dead (sorry) in the last decade that the festival is getting re-stocked with participants from Romero’s later works.

poster advertising 2013 Living Dead Festival in Evans City, PA

Living Dead Festival 2013 poster

How deeply Night of the Living Dead has affected Mr. Kirch is hard to tell, but it’s obvious the experience has stayed with him long after the credits faded to black and the house lights came up at the Arcade’s final show. It’s lingering in his career, his sense of humor, and the devilish twinkle in his eye. Right there, hung on the wall of his kitchen, is a replica mason trowel signed by the actors and encased in glass.

To Mr. Kirch: thank you for sharing your story with us. May you one day get to whack that watermelon with a tire iron–we’ll even buy you the melon.

12 cast members from the film "Night of the Living Dead", photographed in 2013

Kirch (far right) with other “Night of the Living Dead” cast members, 2013 [photo: Lawrence DeVincentz]


[1] What else would you put up there? FlashdanceSilence of the Lambs? That Batman movie?
[2] Not to be confused with the currently-active downtown comedy club of the same name, the South Side Arcade Theatre was an old 1200-seat, 1920s-era movie palace. The building at 1915 East Carson Street burned down in 1984; there is a Rite-Aid there now. Sigh. See: http://cinematreasures.org/theaters/16447
[3] The Streiner brothers were intimately involved with the making of Night of the Living Dead as actors, technical producers, and financial backers. Russ utters the classic line, “They’re coming to get you, Barbara”; Gary is part of the meathook-weilding posse at the end.


Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the Pitt Building as the location for basement scenes in Night of the Living Dead. Those scenes were actually shot around the corner at 247 Ft. Pitt Blvd, where George Romero kept an office. We apologize for the error.

Poetry’s Uplifting Gormandizer: Scott Silsbe Serves Up “Muskrat Friday Dinner”

Poet Scott Silsbe standing in front of faded mural of Viet Nam veterans, Pittsburgh, PA

Think war is Hell? Trying reading this guy’s book! Just jaggin’–it’s good!

Inside, there are many, many nights of consumption–music and alcohol, laughter and greasy food. But also deeply personal reminiscences on childhood, past loves, missed opportunities, anecdotes of the day-to-day, awkward conversations. Yes, you’ll also find that great mother of all poetic downers–mortality.

Muskrat Friday DinnerScott Silsbe‘s just-released third collection of writing, contains all of these.

Some things are difficult. Some things we have to whisper.
Some things we don’t say at all. We have to keep it down.
Even if the laughter is all that’s keeping us alive or sane.

“Three Fragments” (excerpt)

A dirty secret: when poetry is recited at Chez Orbit, it generally involves both super-sized anatomy and the island of Nantucket–so we don’t have a lot of experience in the world of deep verse. Why? A prejudice, for sure: it feels like work in the same way some think about watching foreign films, or listening to twelve-tone music, or flossing. But it needn’t be that way.

Silsbe, who came to Pittsburgh at the turn-of-the-millenia to pursue an MFA in poetry from Pitt, expressly wants to get away from that kind of foo-foo academic writing and create work that’s direct, narrative, accessible, and decidedly not difficult. Muskrat Friday Dinner–from its title poem of a Downriver Detroit saloon staple to the rat-on-a-dinner-plate illustrations–delivers.

book cover for "Muskrat Friday Dinner" by Scott Silsbe

“Muskrat Friday Dinner” book cover, illustration by Paulette Poullet

“Poetry can be fun”, says Silsbe, “I wanted a book of good-time, drinkin’ poems that people will enjoy reading or hearing”.

Arty or arch, these short poems ain’t. That said, fun may depend on one’s sense of humor. But yeah, if you don’t get too worried about the condition of Silsbe’s over-worked liver, you can hopefully enjoy the vicarious thrill of waking up on the living room floor or arriving home with the dawn all from the comfort of your chaise lounge.

The book is so, uh, human-readable in fact, as to sometimes feel like a collection of journal entries, day-after tall tale-telling, or (very) short fiction–narrative, in plain English, and real. “I want to document the world around me,” Silsbe says, “The poetry should be personal so that it can be universal.”

If there’s
enough
money
get me
pork rib.

“Found Poem–Express Lane, Giant Eagle”

Silsbe’s experiences may or may not be truly universal, but they’re sure close. We’ve ridden in that car, ate that midnight meal, ended up in that tavern and didn’t know how or why. You’ve heard a record that felt like it was written just for you, longed for a person behind a second-story window light, seen the beauty in a perfect new snowfall…and then ruined it with your own need to slog through and get home to bed. Everyone past a certain age has received a phone call where he or she ended up needing a black suit.

Silsbe talks about individual pieces taking days–weeks, even–to get right. But the poems have an immediacy that feel like they were inked right then when the memory was still fresh–at the end of the night, or first thing the next morning–his head still throbbing and ears still buzzing.

It’d be nice to get some down so we don’t lose them. Stories grow soft with time. Though sometimes we fill in the gaps with juicier details to make the story better, making the story our own, with the hope we don’t lose the best parts, we don’t sacrifice the real story. As if we really know or care what that is.

“Old Writers Talking About Old Writers” (excerpt)

Us, we’re still buzzing too. Silsbe is right: it is fun to read a book of poetry (twice, even–we had to take notes!) and we’ll do again. Also interesting is getting inside the life of a person we kind of know [full disclosure: Silsbe was an acquaintance prior to the book’s release] vis-à-vis this tightly-edited, metered take on real experiences, Pittsburgh places we know, and people around town.

“There’s something in our makeup that craves to create a beautiful object”, Silsbe says in the poem “Ceremony”, “Essential to that is the knowledge that no thing we create can ever be without defects.” Defects? Yeah, well, maybe–sure. But hat’s off, Mr. Silsbe, you created some real nice stuff here. Thanks for letting us in to have a look.

My God, how I loved living on the earth.
There were those things that sustained me
all those years–the names of the clouds,
the vesper sparrows lined up on a branch,
her bedroom light on behind a red curtain.
I would circle the block just to see that–
knowing it meant she was in there, alive.
perhaps waiting for me, and perhaps not.
But there. And that presence was enough.

“Searchlight”

author Scott Silsbe dressed in suit and tie, drinking whiskey from a bottle in front of a wallpaper beach scene

Another day in paradise. Silsbe at “The Beach”. [photo: Scott Silsbe]

Muskrat Friday Dinner is Scott Silsbe’s third collection of poems. All three are available locally from Caliban Books in Oakland as well as “other fine booksellers”.  Those either preferring or requiring the magic of The Internet can achieve the same from Amazon.


Quoted poems taken from Muskrat Friday Dinner, White Gorilla Press, Belford, NJ ©2017 Scott Silsbe and used with permission of the author.

On the Trail of the Wild Pawpaw, Part 2: Pickin’ Up Pawpaws

eight smaller pawpaw fruits in a white hat on wooden table

Hatful of holler. The first score.

First: a warning. One should not purchase tickets on the pawpaw express without knowing what she or he is getting into. When you opt to “ride the lightning”, you’re hopping on the front seat of an emotional and physical roller-coaster that won’t be slowing down until it’s thrown–nay, broken–all who boarded with anything less than total commitment.

Be prepared to give it all up. Relationship? Over. Career? Gone. That itchy skin? It’s not going away. Don’t bother paying the rent–you’ll be sleeping in your car most nights, anyway. Friends, family, loved-ones? Kiss them all goodbye–they’ll not be seeing you any time soon. When, or if, you reconnect, the vacant look in your eyes will tell them you’re never really coming back.

pawpaw fruit hanging in tree, Pittsburgh, PA

All that glitters. Nearly-ripe fruit sing their siren song, Squirrel Hill.

Andrew Moore is one hard dude to get an interview with…at least, this time of year. You can’t fault him, though–the author’s late summer schedule is solidly packed. Readings and signings at bookstores in Charleston and Brooklyn; judging the Best Pawpaw Contest and presenting at the Ohio Pawpaw Festival; fruit sampling with customers at the Erie Whole Foods; a talk at the nature club in Sewickley…and that’s just a couple weeks worth.

All that, and Moore still made time for Pittsburgh Orbit, right at the mid-September peak of pawpaw season. We knew we may never have this chance again, so we hit him with the big guns right away: Have you ever been bonked in the head by a falling pawpaw? (It could happen!)

As luck would have it, in the last six years of researching, writing, and extensively traveling the pawpaw belt–Ohio to Louisiana, Virginia to Kansas–a fruit-to-cranium collision has never occurred. Moore took this in stride, as did questions about his wife’s tolerance for that demon pawpaw and the amount of refrigerator space devoted to gestating seeds. [Answers: very much, he loves her a lot; and about the size and volume of a shoe box, respectively.]

Author Andrew Moore holding three huge pawpaw fruits in a pawpaw orchard

Andrew Moore with the enormous pawpaws of Deep Run Orchard, Maryland [photo courtesy of Moore]

The Orbit consumed Moore’s 2015 book Pawpaw: In Search of America’s Forgotten Fruit (Chelsea Green Publishing) with a gastro-bibliological gusto that invoked what we can only call Pawpaw Fever. It is the definitive work on the subject and as such, Moore has created an elegantly-constructed and fascinating journey through a (literal) landscape both seemingly prosaic (pawpaws grow wild over most of the eastern half of the U.S.–they’re not rare) and at the same time otherworldly (an ancient fruit, re-arriving out of nowhere, with a narrative gift-wrapped for locavores and foodies alike).

Pawpaw contains a couple broad theses that ring long and loud after the last page is turned: the pawpaw as neglected super food that rightfully deserves to be back in markets, lunch bags, and restaurant menus, and the mystery of how this once-ubiquitous early autumn staple that colors so much American history managed to disappear almost entirely from the nation’s collective consciousness. It’s a great read and, needless to say, the book is Orbit-recommended.

pawpaw tree with sign for free use

The giving pawpaw tree of Squirrel Hill

When last we left our blogger, he was deep in the heart of the Schenley Park pawpaw patch, considering an uncertain fruiture (that’s a future in fruit). The pawpaws dangled tantalizingly in all directions, but like Coleridge’s ancient mariner, there was nary an “Indiana banana”–not to mention pawpaw, paw paw, paw-paw, or papaw*–to eat.

Why? Well, one of the pawpaw’s challenges is that it may only be gathered (either shaken from the tree or collected from the forest floor) when ripe. Unlike, say, a tomato or a banana, the hard pawpaw prematurely selected from the tree will never ripen. That’s no big deal out in the wild, but in the very limited supply and unmet demand within metro Pittsburgh, it’s a real crime to prematurely pick the fruit or overzealously shake the tree.

The hunt was on. We got to the, uh, low-hanging fruit (sorry) first–Schenley Park’s pawpaw patch and the magical pawpaw trees of Squirrel Hill. Moore praises the latter: “God bless [the homeowner/planter] for introducing so many of us to our first pawpaw.” This blogger is no expert, but he’s been around the pawpaw patch enough to realize that while a great entry point, these are chump change, amateur hour, gateway drugs. Both sets of trees are well-known and well-traveled destinations at this point, and as such they’ve been over-shaken, abused, ravaged, and the fruit is rarely given the chance to ripen sufficiently.

A large pawpaw cut in half with spoons and a knife

Giant pawpaw, halved.

So…blah blah blah, but what do they actually taste like? Well, I’ll tell you: they’re freakin’ delicious! The blanket description of “tropical” is safe, and banana is clearly the closest common fruit flavor profile. Some of the fruit we found was darker in color (more orange than yellow inside) and absolutely tasted and felt like caramel custard.

One other detail we never saw mentioned is that the pawpaw is really fun to eat. You slice it in half, eat it with a spoon, sorting tasty pulp from the large seeds in your mouth. They’re really unique–like a small dessert right there in every fruit.

So, our early goal of uncovering free public pawpaws right in the city gets mixed marks. We did indeed taste the fruit of several different trees, but weren’t able to uncover any real surprises. The chase is still on, though. As Moore tells it, the trees give themselves up in October, flashing a bright yellow where others go all dropping leaves and fall colors. The dedicated hunter marks her prey and bides his time for the oncoming season. Until then, The Orbit will be out there, cruising the trails…watching.

potted pawpaw tree, Frick Park, Pittsburgh, PA

Future fruit. Potted pawpaw at Frick Environmental Center, likely destined for their “From Slavery to Freedom” garden project.

Conclusions:

The bad news: According to Moore, there just aren’t that many publicly-available patches in city limits to get your paws on pawpaws…right now. It’s not a case of us not looking close enough–they just aren’t there. Between the amount of city build-up we’ve had, 150 years of heavy industry, and that damned knotweed, whatever wild pawpaw may have hugged the rivers pre-industrialization likely didn’t survive the steel industry, et al. What is here now was almost surely planted very consciously.

The good news: There is no lack of American pawpaw, even very close to Pittsburgh. As Moore says, “This is not an endangered species…you see it everywhere, especially starting right around the Mason-Dixon line** (and south)”. The Orbit finally got its first big score from a set of trees in the North Hills and realized very quickly how fast you can fill a big bag and why one probably shouldn’t eat eight pawpaws in twelve hours.

Further, Moore paints a portrait of an exciting future for Pittsburgh pawpaw. The fruit is either “having its moment” or “coming back”, depending on how you look at it. [Moore’s book is clearly a not-insignificant factor in this.] Pawpaw is on the cultural radar now like it hasn’t been for several generations and the number of city projects in parks, schools, and community gardens–not to mention all the private growers adding a couple trees to their yards–is huge. According to Moore, in five or ten years there will be more city pawpaw trees than you can shake a stick at…or, you know, just shake the fruit out of.

Man seated at table with a large pile of pawpaws.

Driven to madness. The author, with pawpaws.


Pittsburgh Orbit has accepted Moore’s spelling pawpaw (one word), but paw paw (two) seems to appear even more often “in the wild”.
** Basically, the Pennsylvania-Maryland/West Virginia border.

Behold the Hands of Holtz

Artist JR Holtz holding a painting of four women in bikinis

Artist J.R. Holtz with some of his sexy ladies

You may have run into J.R. Holtz just like we did (or do, quite often), out on the street. He sets up on Penn Avenue for the monthly Unblurred art crawls and every Saturday at the Artisan Market in the Strip District. At either location, you’ll find him camped out with an eight-foot folding table covered with dozens of his small- and medium-sized paintings. Each one comes in a repurposed picture frame–or even an entire wooden window–and they’re all for sale at extremely reasonable prices.

several small, framed paintings by artist JR Holtz

Holtz’ recent artwork for sale in the Strip District

J.R., who creates under the moniker Hands of Holtz, tells us he paints every day and he’s been at it since the mid-1980s. His subjects are all across the board: cartoon characters, superheroes, pop culture figures, nature images, family scenes, science fiction, and Pittsburgh sports. On our most recent visit, there were portraits of Prince, Jimi Hendrix, and Muhammed Ali; likenesses of Mighty Mouse, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. Several scenes from Star Wars made their way to Holtz’ glass panes, as had fad-du-jour Pokemon creatures.

painting of Prince in front of an open window with a purple sky and lightning by JR Holtz

Prince/purple lightning

2-color painting of Star Wars characters by JR Holtz

Star Wars

But let’s cut the crap: you’re going to notice the sexy ladies first. It’s hard to focus on Spider Man when there’s this much bare skin going around. Not since the glory days of Cinemax or those weird shaving cream ads they used to run during hockey games has there been semi-public soft-core erotica on display like this.

J.R. is the first to admit “I like the ladies!” and it’s safe to say he isn’t lying. There are strong warrior-princesses, tattooed big-boobed sports fans, tawdry hoochie-mamas, yoga posers with naughty underwear, and lots and lots of smiling, bikini babes–often with added glitter details and bonus Steeler emblems, just for good measure.

painting of woman wearing pink hat, gloves, boots, and skin-tight pants (but no shirt) bending over by JR Holtz

Pink Lady

Many of the images are taken from existing photographs, but Holtz says some of the ladies are friends who pose for pictures knowing they’ll be turned into future paintings. Individual requests and interests of the models are incorporated into the artwork, as are other extra bedazzled features including color-changing paints, glitterized jewelry, and inset photos.

I asked Holtz what the reaction is when unexpecting Saturday shoppers accidentally browse across the decidedly PG-13 content. “Some of them start walking real fast,” he chuckles.

Painting of man in 1970s clothes with caption "Back in the Day"

Back in the Day

J.R. describes his own artwork as novelty, and it’s tempting to overlook it as such. He paints directly on glass which gives the final images a glossy, finished look–almost like when you see framed “cels” from animation. The subject matter is as populist as it comes–you could imagine some of these pieces on sale in a turnpike gift shop. Matthew Barney or Damien Hirst, this ain’t.

But with the flat perspective, heavy black outlines, and single-color schemes, the end result reminds us of a different art superstar on the very other end of the spectrum, Howard Finster. Like Finster, Holtz’s style appears untrained or “naive”, but there’s a beautiful honesty to it–even when the subject is Jedi Master Yarael Poof*.

JR Holtz standing in front of his paintings for sale, Pittsburgh, PA

JR Holtz with more of his recent paintings, Strip District

Holtz is also one of the kindest and nicest artists you’ll meet. He wouldn’t ape for the camera, but don’t believe it–every time we’ve talked with him, J.R. is all smiles, high energy, positive vibes, and can’t wait to tell you about his work.

This blogger doesn’t know what he likes, but he knows art. We probably wouldn’t chose to decorate Chez Orbit with any of the beach babes–at least, we haven’t picked any of those up yet–but we especially love many of his portraits and simpler two-color work. When J.R. hits, it’s as serious as a heart attack and as true as an arrow.


* Not pictured, but among The Orbit‘s small collection of Holtzs.

An Orbit Obit: Clemente Street Art

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (detail), 2013

Today it begins. The period from now until the early dark eves of October is, for many sports fans, a restoration of when things feel right. It is a time of chin music and LOOGies, where men scratch their groins and spit sunflower seeds in concrete dugouts awash in discarded Gatorade cups. It is the season where contests are interrupted at the discretion of “managers” who summon pitchers and catchers at the mound for tense mid-game summits, runners in scoring position the imminent threat. Phrases like “O-and-two, the count,” “low and outside,” “check swing,” and “foul ball” will be repeated ad infinitum. Rivers of yellow mustard, sweet relish, and, yes, ketchup (heathens!) will adorn a non-stop parade of frankfurters. It is a time when spring’s inevitable showers send both players and spectators alike to huddle under whatever protection the park offers while radio announcers ramble on in aimless filibusters to occupy the dead air. It is baseball season.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

Wheel Emporium, a retail outlet and installation garage for what they used to call mag wheels, existed at the corner of Penn Avenue and 34th Street in Lawrenceville for years. The small shop was shuttered some time around 2012 (?) and plywood installed to protect the giant panes of glass in its showroom windows.

Though this blogger would sooner, uh, put ketchup on his hot dog than pay money for fancy auto parts, we always enjoyed passing the little shop with its big windows and array of shiny chrome. But what we liked even more was what came after Wheel Emporium closed: the terrific pair of elaborate street art tributes to Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2013

A note to bloggers: always get an establishing shot! We sadly just took close-up photos of the artwork–and of course they’re now long gone*–so there’s not really a sense of how the pieces relate. For sure, though, we can say there were two nearly life-sized black-and-white enlargements of old photos wheat-pasted to Wheel Emporium’s protective plywood. In the first, Clemente is in his batting stance, left leg starting its lift in anticipation of the incoming pitch. The other–perhaps just seconds later–shows the batter watching the rocket he’s just launched sail from the park, his body twisted in the follow-through of the heavy swing. In both, the artist(s) applied shards of cut painted wood to the plywood which suggest waves of energy coming directly from Clemente.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium, 2014

The tale of the Clemente art took a strange turn a year later. At some point in 2014, the colored wood pieces were all removed and the rest of the exterior plywood painted over in a deep blue color. Amazingly, though, whoever did this chose to preserve the wheat pasted photos, leaving an equally-effective alternate version of the previous year’s art. In these, we see Clemente’s two-tone image really “pop” against the monochrome blue background. It would have been fantastic to re-install the wooden additions on top of the blue, which would have looked far superior to the noisy graffiti’d wood grain, but we can’t always get what we want.

wheat paste and colored wood block street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Wheel Emporium (full), 2013

Roberto Clemente is debatably the most beloved Pittsburgh Pirate for his prowess both in the batter’s box and out in right field (which helped the team win two World Series over his eighteen year tenure) and also for his charitable efforts off the field. His life ended tragically in a plane crash Clemente was on for a humanitarian relief mission to Nicaragua in 1972. For all of these reasons, he’s certainly a fitting subject for not just his bronze statue at PNC Park, but also the street art tributes that appeared in Lawrenceville. We’d love to see more of them.

That said, The Orbit would be equally enthusiastic about seeing similar street-level honors bestowed on other Pirate greats. Imagine a stenciled and spray-painted Honus Wagner or a 3-D “Pops” Stargell constructed from recycled materials. If you don’t see the opportunities in “Big Poison” and “Little Poison” (brothers/teammates Paul and Lloyd Waner), then you’re not trying very hard. Hell, why not create a new set of Greenberg Gardens in the city’s many vacant lots? I guess we need to quit yapping about it and start…planting about it.

wheat paste street art of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Strip District (current)

Addendum: We were so glad to see the tradition of Clemente wheat-pasting continue on a recent ride through the Strip District. This photo was taken just last week and shows what appears to be a relatively new photo of Clemente pasted to a vacant storefront on the 2700 block of Penn Avenue. In it, Clemente’s bat is pointed directly at the camera and he displays a look that’s both steely and also posed, perhaps stifling his characteristic smile to crack serious for the photographer.

bicycle lane marker of Roberto Clemente, Pittsburgh, PA

Bicycle lane marker, Clemente Bridge

One final addition: over at The Portland Orbit, they recently ran a story called “The Beautiful People of the Bike Lane” about the terrific work of that city’s Board of Transportation to make customized, humorous bicycle lane markers. This cyclist was totally jealous and wished Pittsburgh would do something as fun and interesting. Well, it turns out that we do have at least a few these customized “bike guys.” You guessed it: they’re honoring the very same Roberto Clemente on the downtown bridge that now bears his name. It’s definitely Clemente art on the street, even if it’s not, you know, street art.


* The former Wheel Emporium was razed in 2015 and at present there’s a much larger building under construction that appears to be another combined retail/residential mixed-use space.

Street Beat: Who is the Dirty Poet?

Three of The Dirty Poet's poems taped to a light post, Pittsburgh, PA

In the wild: The Dirty Poet’s work where most people experience it

You’ve seen his work. At least, you have if you’ve loitered around any less-than-respectable tavern, coffee shop, or music venue in Pittsburgh’s East End over the last decade.

Xeroxed in small batches–usually two or three bite-sized poems at at time–cut down to vertical half pages, and taped to light poles, left on bulletin boards, and passed hand-to-hand (if you know who to talk to), The Dirty Poet is an old-school bard of the boroughs, a tale-teller of the tarmac. Like the clergyman preaching to drunkards on Skid Row, The Dirty Poet takes the mountain to Mohammed with that very deliberate pre-Internet mass communication, the flyer and handbill.

The Dirty Poet sits on a set of Pittsburgh city steps with his face hidden behind an open copy of his book

The Dirty Poet: his head is always in a book

The Dirty Poet, who spoke with Pittsburgh Orbit on condition of anonymity, claims he is the best read poet in Pittsburgh. Admittedly, this is probably not a high bar, but it would be difficult to name any competition for this title*. “People read these poems that would never read any other poetry,” says The Dirty Poet, and he’s right.

The work is taken out of the English department, out of the bookstores and coffee shop readings, hell, you don’t even have to enter a building–it’s right there on the sidewalk. One needn’t have a college degree or even a library card. [Spoiler alert: you do need to be able to read.] By taking the poems directly to the streets, taped up on light poles, it’s as populist and mass accessible as it could be. Whether he’s reaching people hungry for an unslaked thirst for verse or just bored and waiting for the bus, they’re all [OK, some of them] joining the revival in this tent.

Photocopy of "It's Always Sunny in New Brunswick" by The Dirty Poet, taped to a light pole, Pittsburgh, PA

The Dirty Poet has also been at this a long time. Writing his whole life, he began the practice of pairing his Xeroxed literature with the other gig flyers, ads for weight loss studies, and rock band stickers that litter the street some fifteen years ago. That’s more time than most poets have cumulatively spent in grad school, getting rejected by literary journals, and giving up writing entirely.

In our conversation, El Dirtero spoke with obvious pride about the many chance meetings he’s had with readers as he’s plied his trade on the pavement. “Guys in their twenties come up to me and tell me they’ve been reading me since they were teenagers,” the Dirty One says, “I think I speak to a universal feeling of alienation.”

The Dirty Poet sits on a jersey barrier with the graffiti "Your vulgarity is a virtue"

The Dirty Poet: vulgar, virtuous

But what of the poetry itself? It’s loose, personal, true, vulgar, cynical, sly, smart-alecky, profane, and, yes, possibly (but not usually) dirty. It also doesn’t rhyme and it’s definitely not for everyone. “I write poetry to process my experience,” the Soapless Shakespeare tells us. Subject matter ranges from the topical (politics, gun violence, race relations) to observational (hypocrites of all faiths and isms, technology dependence, media and mass culture) to many personal anecdotes of characters and experiences throughout his life. The Great Unwashed assures us these are all true.

Three poems by The Dirty Poet taped to a light pole on Forbes Ave, Pittsburgh, PA

One final note: Pittsburgh Orbit was planning to reprint a couple of The Dirty Poet’s pieces here, but in the spirit of his work, we thought it only made sense to urge our readers to take the time, step outside, and check out the poetry where it lives, right on the streets of Pittsburgh. If you don’t see it, you’re not trying very hard. And if you don’t live around here, well, this is just one more reason to come pay us a visit**. The Dirty Poet will still be at it when you do.


* Billy Nardozzi, the “Chaucer of the Classifieds,” seems like the only legitimate competition for this title, but when you get into pay-to-play territory, the water gets muddied pretty quick.

** Those looking for a more substantial collection of The Dirty Poet’s work can find the collection Emergency Room Wrestling on Words Like Kudzu Press.

Hey, Porter: Daria Sandburg and Pittsburgh’s Baggage Claim

Hands holding scrap of paper with the writing "Regret drug life that made me loose a child" (sic.)

“Regret drug life that made me loose a child” (sic.) Just one small piece of Pittsburgh’s baggage.

It’s a strange weight to carry–both metaphorically and very literally. The worn, shiny metal case (it was built to carry roller skates) is painted with a series of intriguing messages. A quote from Kate Tempest: “That thing you weep for, leave it,” and one from Carl Sandburg: “What is this load I carry out of yesterday?” The ends of the case have the instructions Got baggage? Leave it here.

The Orbit encountered this unique piece of luggage attached to the arm of one Daria Sandburg who has been toting it through our fair city streets, to events and happenings for a couple years now. Sandburg honors every one of the case’s painted instructions with an invitation for whoever accepts to leave their messages (“Pittsburgh’s baggage”) in the form of short hand-written notes on scraps of multicolored paper. A separate, smaller inset box contains “possibilities,” which people are equally encouraged to submit. Ask nice and Sandburg will convert your hand-written note into cut, stamped metal. Over the last year, hundreds have taken Sandburg up on the offer.

torn paper scrap with the writing "She was abused, now he's dead. No guilt."

Heavy baggage: one of the hundreds of hand-written claims

The baggage claim tickets cover the full gamut of guilt, regret, fear, and much much more. Markers of love and love lost, admissions of poor choices, addiction, and anxieties of every shade are stowed in the case. And while there’s a level of repetition and predictability to many of the entries, the format of one real human having submitted her or his expression in their own hand, in person, directly to Sandburg’s protective case makes each one unique, special, and often tragic.

Even the most prosaic of messages–Being forgotten or My ex or Uncertainty–somehow carry a greater weight when you know the author was right there, among us. Logically, we know everyone has these feelings, but somehow it’s hard to accept, or to believe. The volume of tickets expressing some level self doubt is staggering.

When the claims get deeper, more personal, they can be outright devastating. Take my lies, one reads, or My father’s suicide, or Letting where I missed be the measure of my life, or She was abused, now he’s dead. No guilt. It’s good the slips are so small or these could turn into major therapy sessions on both ends of the paper.

Daria Sandburg and her open case of Pittsburgh's baggage.

Daria Sandburg and her open case of Pittsburgh’s baggage.

All told, it’s a heavy load to carry around. I asked Sandburg if she feels the project, open-ended and unresolved by design, could, ironically, become her own personal baggage. Could she be trapped under the weight of needing to collect and store ever more of the limitless pool of strangers’ personal issues?

The response was remarkably upbeat, positive, and forward-looking. She doesn’t feel married to either the suitcase or the project, especially after the completion of a recent show combining the baggage claims with Sandburg’s original art (inspired by the submitted claims) at Boxheart. [The project required a greater-than-normal commitment to baggage collection.] But at the same time, there are no immediate plans to suspend her regular forays out with the box.

hand stamped metal with the text "I wish I wasn't afraid of doing literally everything"

One of Sandburg’s by-request hammered metal claim tickets.

Sandburg is leaving soon to take the case out for a week-long working/collecting trip to the greater Art Basel Miami (and its associated shows/events) for that annual art/schmooze megalopolis as part of Boxheart Gallery‘s travel team. [Boxheart is participating in the alternative Fridge Art Fair.] There, she’ll be collecting South Florida’s baggage, and yes, mixing it with our own. This blogger predicts more regrets around taking on extra calories or the perils of imperfect abs and less decades-old nightmares around the Mark Malone and Bubby Brister regimes. But maybe we’ll find out that everyone really has the same baggage, even if Miami’s comes well-tanned and wrapped in vintage alligator.

Daria Sandburg holding metal case with painted words "Got baggage? Check it here."

Follow Daria Sandburg and the Baggage Claim project on Twitter and/or Instagram for regular updates on incoming claim tickets–or just look out for the lady with the cool hand-painted metal case. She encourages meeting interested strangers: “Happenstance is what really makes the project wonderful.” If you do spot her, say hello, and maybe consider leaving that thing you weep for.